Nearshore Americas

Q&A: ProBarranquilla Rolls Out New Incentives for Services Investors

Colombia has been carving out a slice of the nearshore BPO pie for a number of years, now boasting operations that serve multinational giants such as HP, Citibank, and Siemens, with BPO powerhouses such as Teleperformance and Capgemeni working the nation into their global strategies.
The rapid growth of outsourcing in Colombia can be attributed to human capital potential and its choice of destinations, with Bogota leading the charge and Medellin closely following. But Atlantico-based Barranquilla also has something to prove, and is keen to flex its BPO/KPO chops against its rival cities.
We sat down with Ana Maria Badel, Executive Director at ProBarranquilla, the state of Atlantico’s trade promotions agency, to find out if the city’s efforts toward developing top-level talent is now paying off, and what the new ecosystem holds for BPO players looking to invest in the region.
Nearshore Americas: Why should ITO/BPO companies choose to establish in Barranquilla over Bogota, Medellin, or Cartagena?

Foto AMBadel
Ana Maria Badel: “Many BPO companies also already exist in Bogota and Medellin, which means their talent pool in this industry is diminishing. “
Badel: Put simply, English and human resources. Barranquilla is the second-highest Colombian city in terms of English speakers, with around 60,000 bilinguals. As well as private language schools, we have 11 language institutions and English is increasingly being taught in public schools. In terms of qualified human resources, we are the capital of the Caribbean region, with over 750 programs across 20 higher education institutions. In fact, 44% of all engineers who graduated in Colombia between 2001 and 2014 graduated in Barranquilla.
Many BPO companies also already exist in Bogota and Medellin, which means their talent pool in this industry is diminishing. Our talent pool is far from dried up; the city has the highest professional and technical talent pool in the north of the country. In terms of infrastructure, such as needed real estate, Barranquilla is cheaper than Bogota and Medellin. The costs per square meter range between US$8-23 for corporate offices. For Bogota, this is US$16-31 per square meter, and U$19-23 in Medellin.
Nearshore Americas: What does the ecosystem look like in terms of ITO and BPO companies already established in Barranquilla?
Badel: We have 14 BPO companies in Barranquilla, which have been built up over the last 5-6 years; 12 of those are IT companies. In the BPO sector, the two most prominent are Sykes Enterprises and Sutherland Global. Sykes is a North American company, which offers technical support for different companies in the United States. They have engineers managing accounts like Cisco, meaning they need well-trained people. Sutherland is an Indian company that is aiming to provide more elaborate work from Barranquilla, such as financial services, and they are currently trying to migrate to a shared services center. Sutherland wants to take on 200 more people in 2016 and 500 more in 2017
Nearshore Americas: What are the average wages for BPO staff in Barranquilla?
Badel: For BPO, the average cost of agents is US$230 a month. A bilingual agent can make US$292, a supervisor makes US$500, an operations coordinator can earn US$833, a manager can make US$2,600, and a general manager of a site can make US$4,000.
Nearshore Americas: Where do companies source their talent from within the Atlantico region?
Badel: Certain educational institutions, such as SENA, offer free technical training programs, as well as English courses. Another institution, Gente Estrategica, is an educational center certified by SENA. They train people according to the needs and requirements of companies. Many BPO and IT companies ask Gente Estrategica to develop courses based on their needs.
Most bilingual employees studied at the best universities in the region, already giving them the skills they need. Combarranquilla has introduced technical training programs for contact centers. Fundación Aliarse, with its program Contact Barranquilla, is teaching contact center skills and English to 16-18 year olds who can enter BPO companies once they graduate. In the last five years, more than 1,000 people have been trained and 60% of these are now involved in the BPO industry.Foto 7 Conectividad Por Puerto de Barranquilla
Furthermore, Simon Bolivar University, Universidad del Norte, Universidad Autónoma del Caribe, and Corporación Universitaria de la Costa, all offer different programs that provide good skills and capabilities to graduates, not only to enter to the industry, but also in the BPO and IT sector.
Nearshore Americas: How much foreign investment has ProBarranquilla attracted to the region in the last year?
Badel: In the last year, we have brought in US$590 million to the city overall, not just in the BPO and IT sector. However, three BPO companies will expand here in 2016 and one more will arrive to set up KPO services. This new American company will attend to patients with diabetes and hypertension. This industry is evolving in the city: it is moving beyond commercialization to cater to knowledge services.
Nearshore Americas: The KPO industry requires very specific skills from its employees. How are you developing these skills among your workforce?
Badel: We have created a bilingualism committee, where we have consulted with CINDE, the promotion agency of Costa Rica, in order to learn how to put bilingual skills into practice. This essential set of skills is enough for companies in BPO or KPO to hire the people and then train them in-house. For example, our cooperation with Sutherland will provide them with 200 new staff, trained in English to B2 level. After that, those employees will be trained for two months in financial services. They do not necessarily need to know each industry before being hired. The company which will provide services to those with diabetes and hypertension need a general manager with medical skills but that does not apply to all employees.
Nearshore Americas: What aspects of Barranquilla and its region still need to improve if it’s to attract more investment?
Badel: Our main challenge is to improve the English-speaking population, not only for the needs of the BPO and KPO industries, but for other sectors as well. Another main challenge relates to taxes. We are trying to better understand the BPO and IT industry, in order to begin providing certain targeted tax incentives. We are working with the metropolitan area office to allow municipalities to start providing such incentives by the beginning of 2017.
Avenida del RíoWe are also trying to change the mindset of the people so that they may see this industry as a real opportunity. Some view call centers as being beneath them, but this industry is evolving and people need to understand that opportunities in the BPO industry bring more than just jobs in commercialization. Professionals can apply their knowledge and put their skills to work in relevant ways beyond just working at a computer. The BPO and IT committee helps the industry follow key trends and work on improvements, but also helps raise awareness of the industry among universities and schools. Changing minds is another way of supporting the industry’s development.
Nearshore Americas: How many people have all your initiatives brought into the BPO industry in Barranquilla over the last 12 months?
Badel: The total amount of people in the BPO and IT sector now is 6,615. However, our projects with vulnerable people have seen around 1,000 students being trained. These graduated with a good level of English and 60% of them are now working in this industry. This shows how our training projects can have a real impact in and around Barranquilla. This month we will begin receiving applications for the next batch of people wishing to be trained in this program, specifically in the municipality of Sabanalarga, the third biggest municipality of the state of Atlantico.
Nearshore Americas: What are your future plans for Barranquilla and what are your projections for foreign investment in the next 12 months?
Badel: Over the past few years, we have seen a particularly high number of industrial projects come into Barranquilla. However, 2016 has seen a high arrival of services and commercial projects. The level of industrial projects is reducing but services and commercial investments are increasing. This is not just happening for Barranquilla but for Colombia as a whole. BPO companies are expanding their operations, another American company will be building the city’s first shared services center, and another that will build a KPO operation. One IT company is settling here to carry out software development and a Chilean IT firm is also expanding. We have seen a good dynamic for the BPO industry this year and we hope this will continue once we roll out the tax incentives in 2017.
What has been your experience of working with Barranquilla-based BPO/KPO companies? Is Barranquilla on your radar as a BPO vendor? Let us know in the comments below. 

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Matt Kendall

During his 2+ years as Chief Editor at Nearshore Americas, Matt Kendall operated at the heart of both the Nearshore BPO and IT services industries, reporting on the most impactful stories and trends in the sector.

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